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Gary Carner - Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer
(Excelsior Editions, 2023)
Who is Pepper Adams?
Cue up “Moanin’” from Charles Mingus’ Roots & Blues (Atlantic Records, 1960). The opening baritone saxophone anchor is Pepper Adams. Now cue up “Little Rootie Tootie” from The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (Riverside, 1959). That is Pepper Adams, part of Monk’s orchestra, soloing on his feature. Adams sounded like no other baritone saxophonist. So, why is he not better known?
That is exactly what author Gary Carner sets out to explain in his biography Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer. The baritone saxophone is a bass instrument, one that establishes the bedrock of a song. It has traditionally been considered a utility instrument, one necessary for tempo or harmony like the tuba. It is too often buried in the mix and not used as a solo instrument. But there have been a few baritone saxophonists who elevated the big horn to a solo instrument: Harry Carney, Cecil Payne, Gerry Mulligan, Serge Chaloff, and, most notably, Pepper Adams.
Carner’s labor of love is based on thirty-seven years of research that included extensive interviews with Adams as well as many of the musicians who worked with the saxophonist. Pepper was a private man who revealed little about himself outside of his music. With a yeoman’s effort, Carner added flesh to the Adams myth: revealing his dreams, met and unmet, personal relationships, triumphs, and disappointments.
This unusual biography unfolds like a Quentin Tarantino movie, revealed from a thematic point of view rather than the traditional chronological one. The book’s central theme is the high regard with which Adams’ colleagues held him. It is made clear from a variety of directions that Pepper changed the trajectory of baritone saxophone performance in ways more revolutionary than evolutionary. Readers expecting an academically footnoted treatise may initially be put off. But a little indulgence of the author will pay dividends.
What Carner’s biography does is inform the reader of an artist often only considered in passing, giving him both context and relevance. It adds cohesion to a story mostly told below the fold of an artist deserving of much more attention. Most importantly, it should lead the reader to listen to Adams’ music. Aside from the two sideman recordings mentioned above, the following recordings celebrate the saxophonist:
10 to 4 at the Five Spot (Riverside Records, 1958), with Donald Byrd
Mean What You Say (Milestone Records, 1966), with Thad Jones
Conjuration: Fat Tuesday's Session (Reservoir Records, 1983), with Kenny Wheeler
This should get you started.